The male gaze can be harshest when directed at the self. Until puberty, I was blissfully unaware of my own body, aside from the odd graze or bee sting. But then, at the age of 11 or 12, my body became a contested space. In the steaming showers after PE, I compared myself unfavourably to others, both my classmates and what I saw in the wider culture. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in finding that infamous Coca-Cola window-cleaner advert (in which a shirtless man tantalises an office full of women) to be 30 seconds of highly triggering humiliation – and a (low-calorie) modicum of sweet revenge for all the years of men doing the same to women.
Yet watching the video again as I write this essay on how to explore the buffeted nature of modern masculinity against the physicality of the male body itself, I can easily recall that awkward, resentful twinge. For the past quarter-century or so, my life staring at men has been a complicated experience – a signal to arousal, yes, but also to fright and flight; to self-loathing at my own physical inadequacy.
During those years, looking at pictures of men who populate the Barbican’s new exhibition Masculinities: Liberation Through Photography would, like a highbrow take on that TV ad, have sent me to a terrible and negative place. The artfully posed muscular bodies, the confident eye meeting the camera’s lens, the camaraderie among queers and straights alike, the performance of group ritual – they might as well have been aliens. How did I connect with these masculine ideals of fashion and sport?
The Barbican exhibition largely features images taken in the decades of gender revolution that followed the Second World War. During successive waves of feminism, women have explored different tactical approaches to redefine themselves against an oppression that stretches back beyond recorded history. Men, however, failed. We never had conversations among ourselves about this realignment, and nor did we seek to engage effectively with what was being said around us. Even gay rights activists and feminists struggled to get along. Instead, we doubled down and hoped it might all go away. The cultural thuggery of 90s laddism was business as usual, the same pernicious attitudes allowed to continue, merely disguised with a veneer of irony.
After the joy of a childhood full of parental love, my teenage years coincided with that boorish decade, throughout which mainstream TV programmes from Friends to Fantasy Football were drearily conformist in their representations of gender. Struggling to understand my bisexual identity, I came up against Section 28, which the Tories used to legislate loneliness by forbidding the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools. My all-boys comprehensive was a hormonal soup I despaired at being boiled in, the hierarchy decided by playground football, prowess with girls, expensive sportswear.
In the seven years I was there, I never knew of a single out gay or bisexual pupil – just hateful whispers. The deranged and lonely testosterone flood carried me to the dank caverns of local public toilets, where I was taken advantage of by a succession of grim older men. I told myself that this was just a rite of passage, unable to see myself as a victim of these predators who leered at my 14-year-old self through bulging eyes.
Men frequently never seem to leave puberty – and destructive patterns become ossified into adulthood. I explored this in a memoir, which I began writing, during a period of intense personal turmoil, as a book about a forest near London. I hadn’t thought it was about masculinity, but bisexuality, bullying, recovery from abuse, depression, isolation, sexual compulsion, even how we define ourselves against or within nature, all of which have at their roots the impossible expectations of gender.
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I write this not because I think my situation was unique, but because I suspect it was nearly universal. Even those young men who pretend to fit in frequently don’t, but instead are pushed into denying their true complicated selves for the sake of acceptance in the wider group. When are any young men taught to be in touch with their bodies, to explore them as the sensuous manifestation of their true selves? The male mind and body are frequently in a turmoil of shame and self-denial, resulting in a mental health crisis that means suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50 in the UK.
Just as I don’t believe anybody is entirely straight or gay, there’s an unrecognised fluidity beyond the self-identified gender fluid. Why do we seem to have forgotten that cis-gendered masculinity is in itself a broad and beautiful, diverse spectrum? As Walt Whitman put it in his heroic, erotic and at the time controversial poetic hymn to masculine and feminine personhood, Song of Myself: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” He wrote those lines in the mid-1850s, yet 170 years later, they can still feel ahead of our time.
The contemporary debate around gender has hardly helped. It frequently treats masculinity as a lumpen identity, with the accusation of toxicity applied to all. As someone who has spent my life suffering from the consequences of negative maleness, through predatory abuse, biphobia, bullying, the drunken screams of “fucking poof” and that constant and overpowering sense of threat that paves the nocturnal streets of little England, this has been hard to process.
Toxicity in male identity is not elemental and inevitable
I constantly see men pushed to extremes by the nature of the contemporary conversation. I am as wary of a performative wearer of a “This is what a feminist looks like” T-shirt as I am the disciples of the “eat steak and tidy your room” Jordan Peterson doctrine. Both have embraced the comfort of simplistic and binary positions, exactly the opposite of what we all so desperately need.
There’s a contradiction in a discourse that on the one hand claims that male privilege, entitlement and the patriarchy are the most powerful forces of oppression humanity has ever created, and on the other would (understandably) like men to process this quickly, and without fuss.
If having the upper hand for centuries breeds an entitlement that means men find it hard to realise that they’ve benefitted from systems of male privilege – even if they have frequently been the victims of it – then to deal with this is going to take time. This isn’t to make excuses, but to say that in a world darkened by binary thinking, collaboration and solidarity between all genders is the only thing that will get us through. “Love’s the only engine of survival,” as Leonard Cohen had it, and Leonard Cohen was usually right.
Paradoxically, it was the emergence of terms such as “toxic masculinity”, and suddenly feeling myself lumped in within that unpleasant morass, that led me to explore just what my identity as a man might be. I began to unlearn my own prejudices, to suppress that lingering rush of resentment when I saw teenage lads bantering with play punches on the street, or stag-do boys dressed as bananas yelling on the tube.
I started to find solidarity in unexpected places. Since my teens I have been an out bisexual man, but a closet fan of West Ham United. My own binary thinking had led me to believe that my sexuality and revulsion at groups of men in football mode was incompatible with enjoying the frequently depressing fortunes of a team once notorious for the violence of a small group of their fans.
Indeed, football hooliganism seems to be one of those masculine identities where the actions of a minority toxify the wider group. Eventually, I realised I wouldn’t be subjecting myself to the endless disappointments of following West Ham if I didn’t genuinely care. I started taking this most painful of relationships more seriously. I discovered West Ham’s LGBT+ supporters organisation Pride of Irons – a hilarious, passionate, caring and diverse group that encompasses gay, lesbian, straight, bisexual and trans members.
At the London Stadium I stand in a communal fug of lager and Dior Sauvage singing I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles, a glorious anthem of optimism in failure, and feel euphoric as I dissolve into the 50,000 people around me to find a curious self-acceptance that for decades has eluded me.
Yet I cannot be complacent in this personal victory. I’m not sure how we try to take nuance and make it universal in the current climate. Photography exhibitions in London galleries are all very well, but they can only ever speak to a minority. Instead, we cry out for the kinds of structural change that eventually will create tectonic shifts.
We might look to Sweden, where fathers and mothers are given governmental and employer support to split 480 days of parental leave between them. Let’s stop talking of male role models and hope that boys might find inspiration from their elders in all genders.
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Perhaps the tallest order is to make the language we use less divisive. I was struck by the words of Soma Ghosh, writer and editor of radical feminist magazine The Demented Goddess, when she told me of her dislike of the concept of toxic masculinity, and how it might impact her young son: “I don’t want to script, limit or resent his ‘manhood’,” she writes. “At his rural primary school, he calls out homophobia and decries Mary not speaking in his Nativity play as sexist. Would he feel so free to fight for fairness if he felt his masculinity was inevitably harmful, toxic, loathsome?”
We need to accept that toxicity in male identity is not elemental and inevitable. Instead, we ought to see it as a by-product of change, a waste substance that, like the slag heaps of industrial ruin, might one day vanish.
At my most optimistic, I see green shoots when all around me it feels as if men are finally starting to talk. Even in my adolescence, the boorish chuntering of laddism was a form of silence, where those of us who didn’t conform either shut up or played along. Because men struggle to communicate and often do so within strict linguistic rules and codes, they’re easily stereotyped: model railway enthusiasts as anoraks, football fans as thugs, and so on. Yet some of the most nuanced discussion on the importance of discussing mental health I’ve heard in recent months has been on West Ham fan podcasts.
We’re even getting better at expressing our vulnerability when it comes to sex. I recently participated in a documentary about the huge rise in young men taking Viagra. In a community centre with a Nigerian church singing songs of praise next door, seven men discussed the expectations, fears and pressures that had led them to pop the little blue pill. There was crude humour and banter, but also a exploration of performance anxiety and the deep insecurity that so many men feel as we try to make sense of our bodies and the essential drive of our sex against the ubiquitous vortex of hardcore pornography. Complexly intertwined with the cruelty of unrealistic body image in advertising and on TV, this garish scroll of grunting is an engine of misogyny that exploits and inflames male insecurity.
Only in frank honesty and acceptance will we get beyond these painful orthodoxies and myths that hold us back. If I look in the mirror and then back at those images from the Barbican exhibition, I am struck by John Coplans’s photograph Frieze No 2 – Four Panels, of a naked male body covered in a rough scrub of hair over curving belly, Martian canals in the loose skin over elbows and below buttocks. It’s an image at once sensual, affirming and familiar.
I’ve recently entered middle age, when suddenly my body feels like one of those diagrams on which you mark damage when hiring a car – two weak knees that crunch when I sit, constantly needing to get up for a piss in the night, humped shoulders, nose hair, terrifying twinges, two-day hangovers. I had often felt I had missed out on being a man, yet looking at my own body, and that photograph, I finally recognise and feel a comfort in my slow ache towards the grave.
“Liberation” is an appropriate title for the Barbican’s exhibition. We’ve all heard of women’s lib, but the term has never been applied to men, more in need of liberating than anyone. After all, the structures and webs of codes and expectations that hold men down are the same as manifest in the death grip of patriarchy. Liberate men, and we liberate us all.
Masculinities: Liberation through Photography is at Barbican Art Gallery from 20 February to 17 May 2020 (barbican.org.uk). The exhibition book, edited by Alona Pardo, is published by Prestel at £39.99. Buy it for £33.59 at guardianbookshop.com. Luke Turner is the author of Out of the Woods